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indieWIRE INTERVIEW | “Loins of Punjab Presents” Director Manish Acharya

indieWIRE INTERVIEW | "Loins of Punjab Presents" Director Manish Acharya

Manish Acharya‘s directorial debut, “Loins of Pubjab Presents” follows a group of “would-be superstars” in a New Jersey-based, Bollywood-inspired “Desi Idol” singing competition, sponsored by local butcher company Loins of Punjab. The finalists competing for the $25,000 prize represent the South Asian diaspora through a “delightfully eclectic cross-section” of personalities. The #1 English language comedy ever to open in India, “Loins” has screened and garnered prizes at international film festivals including the First Run Film Festival, New York’s 2007 South Asian International Film Festival, and the 2007 San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival. The film opens today, Friday, September 12 at the Quad Cinema and ImaginAsian Theater in New York City, and the Bloomfield 8 Cinemas in Bloomfield, CT. indieWIRE spoke to Acharya about the film and his hopes for U.S. theatrical release.

Tell us a bit about yourself… What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?

I was born and brought up in Mumbai, India. I came to the US to go to college, where I majored in Physics and Computer Science. That was followed by a year of working as a computer programmer in Des Moines, Iowa. After that, I went for a Masters degree in Industrial Relations, which is a combination of Management, Psychology, and Economics. After grad school, I joined a start-up as one of the founding members and spent the next six years of my life in various roles there, culminating as the Head of Worldwide Marketing. It was after this stint that I chose to become a filmmaker, and I applied to the graduate film department at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where I was accepted into the MFA program.

So my path to films has been a circuitous, scenic route. During my undergrad and grad years, I took electives in writing, and theater, and TV. While in corporate America, I would take evening classes in photography, writing, painting, etc. more out of interest than as part of any grand plan. In hindsight, it looks like I was preparing to be a filmmaker all my life.

Why movies? I just loved them. They were my “friends” when I was growing up. All through my teen years, I would obsessively watch movies, always in the theater and sometimes alone if no one would go with me. And so, maybe this career choice is just me trying to go back and hang out with some old friends.

Please discuss how the idea for “Loins of Punjab Presents” came about.

The idea for the film originated in a Starbucks in midtown Manhattan. A friend of mine and I were chewing the fat about the newfound Western interest in all things Bollywood, and we felt that many were missing what makes Hindi movies so pervasive in Indian culture–the songs. And as we discussed this singing contest I had been to in New Jersey, the movie began to take form. We started with the kinds of people who compete, who among them takes these contests very seriously, why they participate … and suddenly I realized that I wanted to see these people on screen. And “Loins of Punjab Presents” was born.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences, as well as your overall goals for the project?

For this film, I wanted the filmmakers, and I use the word loosely to include the cameraperson, the sound engineer, the costume designer, etc., to be invisible. I didn’t want anyone discussing how they liked the camera movements, or the lighting, or the production design … I wanted the audience to enter this world and think that we captured it almost like a documentary crew would have captured this comedy of situations. So “invisibility” became the guiding principle for all the folks behind the camera.

In terms of influences, I would say Robert Altman, Woody Allen and Christopher Guest as well as an Indian director named Hrishikesh Mukherjee were my biggest influences.

In the 20/20 vision of hindsight, I would say I had three overall goals. (1) For the movie to be entertaining. (2) For it to reward repeat viewings. And (3) for it to open doors for me and enable me to make more films.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project?

This is a movie that doesn’t belong anywhere. In India, it was a film in English, set in New Jersey, about a bunch of people who were from India, but were foreigners. Here, it’s a film with brown people speaking English and singing songs, and it’s a comedy as opposed to a depressing movie set on the banks of some holy river. So it kind of sticks out like a sore thumb everywhere, and the gatekeepers (the distributors, festival curators, exhibitors) mostly didn’t want to take a risk on it. Luckily the film did very well when it released in India, running for over 7 weeks in 22 cities.

And now with the upcoming release in the US … I am excited and anxious. In many ways, I’m bringing the film back home, and that carries its own set of expectations and tensions.

How did the financing the film come together?

As I said earlier, my background is in a software startup. So I started by calling folks from those days, thinking that it would be really easy to raise funding from all these millionaires who had worked with me before. Well, I drew a blank. They, for the most part, were very polite and very tight-fisted.

And that’s when the call came. Right after I had left my corporate career, I consulted for a year or so to pay for my college expenses. During that time, a friend who had started a company asked for my help. I couldn’t take money from him and so had jokingly told him that if he ever made money on the company, he should finance my first film. Well, he called and told me that his company had been bought by Google and he was wondering where to send the check for my first film. And that initial infusion got the movie going. We had a couple of other investors who coughed up the rest of the budget and we were set.

I spent a lot of time casting and probably drove my casting director insane. We cast in Mumbai, Chennai, New York, and London. And I think we have an amazing cast who make me look good.

What other genres or stories would you like to explore as a filmmaker?

I like comedies and thrillers. So I guess I definitely want to do that. I am a romantic at heart so romantic dramas are also on the wishlist. And I fantasize about directing action fantasies like “Lord of the Rings.” I pretty much want to sample everything on the menu. With the exception of horror.

What is your next project?

I am working on 3 different projects right now, all of which should go into production in 2009. The film I am most excited about is a comic thriller set in Tokyo and Mumbai. It has two Indian characters and two American characters in the lead.

What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?

I have a definition that maybe considered simplistic, but it works for me. An independent film is a film that got made only because of the passion of one person or a very few people defying the odds.

What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?

If you are a director trying to break in–write a great script. There is a huge paucity of “content” and if you have a script that people like and you can resist the temptation to sell it, that’s the fastest way to bagging your first feature.

Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.

The entire cast and crew of “Loins” has told me repeatedly ever since principal photography ended that they would work with me again in a heartbeat. That makes me feel really good.

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